I had the privilege of attending a traditional Christian Reformed Church in my youth. Some of my earliest memories of our time as a family at church were the special missionary Sundays. In the church basement surrounded by a spread of ham, buns and an unknown colorful jello salad, the missionary would present a slide show of lands and people that were much different than me I found myself captivated by the stories from the far away mission field. Hearing of people becoming Christians, or seeing pictures of children my age learning the same Sunday school stories I had learned were as thrilling as the stories of poverty and disease were heartbreaking. Even as a young boy I admired, respected and was attracted to what I perceived to be the adventure of being a missionary, of being a person who lived the Christian life in a way that was different “over there” than it was in my neighborhood or church. Mission was something that was separate from the life of the local church and was an exciting venture that happened in other places.
This understanding of missions remained unchallenged for most of my adult life. As I observe and interact with many Christian friends in a variety of context, I don’t think their understanding of mission has developed much from what they understood as a kid from those mission Sunday services. Again, I am thankful for those experiences as a kid and the impact those mission Sunday’s had on my spiritual formation! The problem with mission Sunday’s is the impression, intended or not, that mission was not local, was not for everyone, was something you gave your money to or, if you were really adventurous, went on a mission trip to visit for a short period. I believe understanding mission this way thwarts our ability to embrace the missionary calling that we all have whether we live in plains of an African country or in the plains of Kansas, whether your city is Nairobi or Kansas City, whether your calling is to Jerusalem or to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8) We are called to be God’s missionaries as we enter into the Kingdom of the great missionary King!
When we repent and enter into the Kingdom we are confronted with the claims of Christ; confronted with the life of Christ and the heart and scope of the Gospel he preached; a Gospel which reconciles all things, which restores all things, which makes things new (2 Cor. 5:18-21). We understand that in Him there is a new birth, a completely different way of living (John 3), that we are empowered to live in this new life because of the Spirit of God which now lives in us (Rom 8), that we belong to a new family, a new brotherhood, a church (Eph. 4), and our sent on a mission to live as ambassadors for our King, as citizens in his new Kingdom, preaching I both word and deed the Kingdom and Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20, Acts 28:31). Having been touched by God to repent and enter into his Kingdom, we begin to live a new way, see things differently, and develop values which are contrary to culture and to the way we understood the world before. Our new life and values intersect with those who have not entered this new Kingdom of God. We become a city on the hill whose bright light shines (Mat. 5:14). We become missionaries sent to proclaim the Gospel in a world that has sinned and is deserving of judgment, but we are also sent to a world in which all of humanity, indeed all of creation, suffer from the consequences of sin. These consequences include all which stands against shalom, such as poverty, sickness, systematic oppression, injustices, and racism. We are to engage both those who sin and those who are sinned against in the missionary Kings plan of redemption.
The mission of the gospel that we present and preach is not limited in direction to a place “over there” or in a world far away, but is also for our own backyard. This is why the vocal proclamation of the gospel is accompanied by the incarnation of the one who is preaching and presenting the Gospel with both words and a life lived out. I enjoy Eugene Peterson’s translation in the message of the incarnation of Jesus when he says “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14). Could I be a missionary in my own neighborhood or my own city? I never would have guessed it was possible as a young child watching a great slide show. When we understand missions as something that happens outside of our town, city or country, if we understand it as only international we falsely segment a calling that was given to us all. You don’t have to bring a slide projector, but I would love to celebrate Mission Monday with you and hear the stories of your mission in your neighborhood. I will even bring some ham on bun.